Critic doesn't stop Metra land buy moving forward

Published: 8/15/2009 12:01 AM

Metra directors Friday authorized purchasing a controversial property near Crystal Lake partly owned by McHenry County Board Chairman Ken Koehler Friday.

Officials plan to build a commuter station there in the future that they estimate would be used heavily by students at nearby McHenry County College.

The cost of the 17-acre deal is $1.54 million, which translates into about $81,800 an acre.

"This has been on our agenda for years," Executive Director Phil Pagano said. "Clearly it's a desirable location."

Officials acknowledged they were buying land from a trust whose sole beneficiary is Koehler.

"Without question, this is the best site for the station. Since the county chairman was involved, we wanted to make sure it met any sniff tests," Pagano said.

But Craig Steagall, a Crystal Lake businessman who owns land that Metra also considered, says the location is wrong and that political connections played a role.

Steagall, who has established a Web site critical of the sale, said Metra board members did not "have the time or inclination to do their due diligence."

He said he had offered his property at about $10,000 less an acre than the Koehler site and predicted that Crystal Lake, which will be asked to annex the property as part of the deal, "will not want anything to do with the stench of this transaction."

Metra leaders countered that Steagall was self-interested. The location north of the Union Pacific tracks on the inbound side is more convenient for commuters in morning rush-hour compared to Steagall's land on the south side, officials said.

"It was fairly appraised," Metra Chairman Carole Doris said. "Assuming we get favorable zoning and annexation, it makes sense."

Koehler told the Daily Herald earlier that he thinks Steagall was suffering from a case of sour grapes.

The site is on Country Club Road near the small town of Ridgefield, and is one of several stations planned by Metra to expand Union Pacific Northwest Line.

Metra Director Jack Schaffer of McHenry County, who has an interest in an advertising company that has a sign on the land, recused himself from the vote.

Metra Director Jim LaBelle, who represents Lake County, said he regretted there were no plans for housing next to the train station.

"It looks like a parking lot in the middle of the country," he said.